Notes from Monticello (1): Thoughts on Homesickness

For the month of August, I’ll be living in Virginia on a fellowship with the International Center for Jefferson Studies. During this fellowship, I’ll be conducting research for my novel-in-progress, which is set in 18th century America during the Revolutionary War. These blog posts will record my musings on research, travel, and life in general during my fellowship.

 

Recently, I was chatting with one of the other fellows here at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. She was relaying a story about her time spent studying abroad in Italy. She told me about how, on day five of her Italian trip, exhausted and frustrated by the language barrier, she broke down crying in front of her host mother. She was homesick. Incredibly homesick.

Her host mother just nodded patiently and, weeks later, informed her that this always happened. All the American students who had previously come to stay with her had experienced a similar bout of homesickness between days five and ten. It was totally normal.

As I listened to the other fellow relaying this story, we were driving through the lush Virginia countryside, dotted with red barns, vineyards and adorable picket fences. This is postcard perfect America. It’s green and the people are friendly. There are fried green tomatoes on the menu and red brick buildings, horses and historic farmhouses. It was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite place on earth. And yet I felt, in the pit of my stomach, a small sadness. I was homesick in a foreign country. Between days five and ten. Like clockwork.

Only the problem is, I’m American. Born and raised in Austin, Texas. I wanted to feel right at home, back in America. Yet I was homesick for rain against the bay windows in my flat in Glasgow. I was homesick for Scotland.

*

I arrived in Virginia for my fellowship with the International Center for Jefferson Studies about a week ago. It’s an incredible opportunity. I am here for a month to do research for a novel and I have access not only to the incredibly beautiful Jefferson Library, but also to private tours of Jefferson’s home Monticello, to archives and a community of expert scholars, all of whom are eager to hear about my project and to help me with my research into 18th century life.

Naturally, I’ve been meeting a lot of new people in the last week. Often one of the first questions they ask is, ‘Where are you from?’

I tell them Austin, Texas, but then add that I live in Scotland. That I’ve been in Scotland for six years, my entire adult life. ‘That makes sense. You have a tiny bit of a Scottish accent,’ they often say.

Now that I’m back in America, I can taste the edges of a Scottish accent in my mouth. The way my voice goes up at the end of questions. Or when I use words like ‘quite’, ‘lovely’ and ‘brilliant’.

People are, naturally, very curious about my life in Scotland. The weather, the whisky. One afternoon at lunch, I almost started crying when someone mentioned a beautiful trip they had taken to the Scottish highlands. Jet-lagged and slightly disoriented, I instinctively put my hand on my heart and felt my eyes welling with tears. Just in case that wasn’t melodramatic enough, I said in a voice steeped in adoration, ‘Scotland is where my heart is.’

That night in my little apartment, I listened to the summer sounds of insects outside and the low hum of the air conditioner. I skyped with my mom in Texas and I kept saying to her, ‘I’m homesick.’

‘For Scotland?’ she asked.

I nodded. It was a big realization. ‘Home’, for me, wasn’t Texas anymore.

I wondered when that changed. I wondered if it had changed.

*

A few weeks ago, before my fellowship in Virginia, I was on holiday (or ‘vacation’, if you prefer) with my partner in Italy. One afternoon, I decided I was fed up with tiny coffees. I didn’t want an espresso in a tiny white cup. I wanted a big mug of watery coffee. The kind of coffee that you find at a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Doughnuts or in the glass pot on the counter in any office in America.

We were at a little pastry shop in Milan at the time, which looked straight out of a Wes Anderson film: waiters in smart black and white outfits, colorful little pastries in neat rows. I ordered an Americano even though it was five pm and I knew that the only acceptable thing to drink at that point was espresso.

The waiter raised an eyebrow at my request and brought me (this is real) a shot of espresso with a cup of hot water. A Do-It-Yourself coffee. Americano for the Americana.

My partner told me the story about how americanos are named after the American soldiers who came to Italy during WWII and craved, just like me, the watery, filter coffees of their homeland. So the Italians added hot water to strong black coffee.

I poured the hot water over the espresso. When I sipped it, it tasted perfect. It tasted like air conditioned afternoons in malls with my friends or driving my old Volvo listening to crappy pop music on the radio after school. I was sick with love for the tastes of my childhood. For Texas. I wanted breakfast tacos with avocado and sunlight in my eyes. I was filled with nothing but excitement that, in just a few weeks, I would be in America for my fellowship.

I was going back to America. Home.

2016-07-14 17.54.44

Pasticceria Cucchi, Milano, Italy. July 2016.

*

But from the moment I’ve arrived back in the US, things have felt strange. Unfamiliar.

I got brunch in Charlottesville with one of the other fellows and her friend. We had breakfast tacos and I got a big mug of coffee with cream. The weather was bright and muggy. We swatted away flies.

I bit into the taco with black beans, avocado, pico di gallo, eggs and cheese in a corn tortilla. It should have been perfect. The perfect taco and that simple cup of coffee that I had been fantasizing about back in Italy. It tasted good – great – but I wished that it wasn’t so hot outside. I wasn’t used to heat anymore. Heat had become hostile to me. I wished the sun was softer.

And I thought about how nice and unusual it was that everywhere here takes credit cards.

How pleasant that people here dress more casually.

How interesting to see how huge the stores are and how much sugar everything has in it.

How everybody drives. Everywhere.

I was looking at things like an outsider.

‘Is the taco everything you hoped for?’ the other fellow asked and I nodded.

But that was a lie.

What I wanted from that meal was the feeling that I belonged, that I was returning to somewhere I easily fit.

But the cream from the coffee sat heavy in my stomach. America wasn’t somewhere I felt totally at home. The realization was physically painful. Like trying on a favorite sweater (or ‘jumper’, if you prefer) only to notice that it has shrunk in the wash. Or that you’ve grown out of it.

Either way, it isn’t the same.

*

I googled ‘Homesickness’ and found an article which called it the ‘distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home. Its cognitive hallmark is preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects.’

Is coffee an attachment object? When I was in Italy, I couldn’t stop craving American coffee and breakfast tacos. Sunlight and avocado. And, if so, does that mean America is still my home? Or, at least, one of my homes?

Yet, now that I’m in America, I can’t stop thinking about Scotland. The sound of the kettle boiling. The bubbles rising in a pint of cider. The rain on bay windows.

Is homesickness always a transitory state? What happens if you feel it more frequently? Is it possible to live in a permanent state of homesickness? To be a little bit homesick all the time?

*

Since I moved away to live in Scotland, I’ve gained so much. A broadened perspective of the world. A slightly more informed, slightly more objective, look at the culture that I left behind. Friends whose backgrounds are wholly different than mine. That excitement when I hear a funny word or slang phrase I’ve never encountered. Numpty. Dreich.

But what I’ve lost is a foothold in one specific culture. I’m now an interesting novelty in Scotland and in America. In Europe, people will always point out when I say ‘y’all’. In America, people will always notice how my sense of style is more ‘European’. I’m not rooted in either place anymore, but treading the strange waters between two continents.

And I’m fortunate, I know. Fortunate to have moved oversees for university. To be able to fly back and forth, every now and then. This fact I know. I think of it often and I’m grateful.

But this week has been a difficult one.

Not only homesick for Scotland, missing the rhythms of my life, my flat, my partner, my university, my friends. But also mourning the fact that America is no longer a place of ritual comfort, no longer a place I totally and effortlessly fit.

This is made all the more difficult with the knowledge that, due to immigration laws and difficulty finding a job, I might be forced to move back to America after my PhD. It all depends.

I am treading water between two cultures. I have a book spread open on my lap about the old south. I’m trying to root myself in the history of a place that is at once is so familiar and so unfamiliar to me. At the same time, I’m receiving texts from my friends in Scotland. A place at once home and yet always brimming with words, jokes, dynamics I’ll never know.

Sometimes I miss rain and bay windows.

Sometimes sunlight, tall coffee, avocados.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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